Government

Impact on Iowa labor likely limited after Supreme Court ruling against unions

Still, union leader decries 'orchestrated nationwide attempt to weaken labor unions'

(File photo) Iowa State Education Association President Tammy Wawro of Cedar Rapids speaks Feb. 12, 2017, as teachers and supporters from around the state gather to protest low school funding, vouchers and stripping collective bargaining rights at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. (Scott Morgan/freelance)
(File photo) Iowa State Education Association President Tammy Wawro of Cedar Rapids speaks Feb. 12, 2017, as teachers and supporters from around the state gather to protest low school funding, vouchers and stripping collective bargaining rights at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. (Scott Morgan/freelance)

Leaders of Iowa’s two largest public employee unions deplored the idea that unions representing state public workers will be prohibited from collecting fees from non-members, even though the impact in Iowa is likely to be limited.

Iowa already is a right-to-work state and state law says public employees have the right to refuse to pay what are known as “agency fees.”

The U.S. Supreme Court found in favor Wednesday of an Illinois public worker, ruling that such fees — which unions say are aimed at covering the cost of contract negotiations and grievance settlement — cannot be collected from unwilling public employees. The court said the practice violates the First Amendment.

Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61, the largest public sector union in Iowa, said this week that forbidding collection of such fees will have an effect on labor unions across the country. He also said conservative groups already are working in states to try to persuade union members to drop their membership.

“It’s all an orchestrated nationwide attempt to weaken labor unions, which will in effect hurt working men and woman across the country,” he said.

Iowa unions already face their own challenges. The Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law last year stripping most collective bargaining rights from public sector unions representing predominantly non-public safety employees.

So far, Iowa’s public unions mostly have been successful at retaining their viability. More than 90 percent of retention elections last fall went in favor of the unions. Regular retention elections were another requirement of the 2017 law.

However, Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association, said this week she’s concerned there will be high-profile campaigns waged in border states like Illinois and Minnesota to try to persuade union members to drop membership. And that effort, she said, could have an impact across state lines.

“I’m afraid it will have a negative impact on the (public relations) of unions in Iowa,” she said.

She also said the National Education Association issues grants to districts in states like Iowa, and the loss of revenue could have an impact, too.

“We get a lot of community support” from the NEA, she said.

Wawro and Homan spoke before the ruling was issued, though it was previously anticipated the court would rule against the unions.

Supporters of the court’s decision say the imposition of fees on non-members violates their free speech rights, and that those charges, which often come in the form of payroll deductions, are often too high.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, who hailed the decision Wednesday, said union members there would be notified of the ruling right away and be given a chance to modify their union status.

He said the average Illinois state worker who belongs to a union pays more than $900 a year in fees.

“This ruling is pro-worker and pro-taxpayer,” he said.

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